While this is certainly not the best of the choices I had to write about, or even close to the best of Mario Bava‘s films, it is the movie I chose to watch on Halloween this year. I’ve been holding off on this one for awhile, knowing the myriad of different DVD releases out there and the often written about problem with its audio track (where the dialogue volume is too low and the music and sound effects are too loud). However, almost the entire first reel of the film is dialogue free.
This movie was made in a time when post-sync dubbing was common place, meaning that the films were more economically shot without any sound and actors voice tracks were dubbed over in-studio, after the fact. In some productions of international casts, actors would simply speak their native language and be dubbed over with an entirely different person’s voice speaking an entirely different language. All actors in this film “mouth” in English, but some of the voices obviously do not match the faces. So, FYI if that’s something that may bother you (I suggest trying to not look directly at the mouths when they speak, if that’s something you find yourself doing). The Italian audio was not available for comparison on this newest U.S. release from Vol. 2 of the Mario Bava Collection (edit: I’m listening to the Tim Lucas commentary as I put these words online and he says that there is a version actually shot with spoken Italian dialogue that has been released on DVD in Italy under its original title, Reazione a catena, that contains, in his esteemed estimation, much more naturalistic, engaging dialogue).
For those that are not familiar with Bava, I suggest you click on his name there; he is an Italian cinematographer who happened to also start directing after finishing the movies of a few other directors. Bava’s career, unlike more recently linked contemporaries (like, say, Dario Argento), spanned various genres, but he is most known for his atmospheric use of (color) lighting and shadow. This film, like many that bear his name, suffer from bad acting, bad dialogue, and sometimes atrocious pacing. However, there are always moments in his films that are noticeably brilliant. In a film like this, those moments happen to be the death scenes.
The acclaim handed to this film mostly stems from it retrospectively being known one of the first slasher films. Growing out of the Italian giallo and murder-mystery genres, the focus here is less on the story and whodunit, than, you guessed it, the body count. The movie does not disappoint in this regard. There are some brilliant match cuts in this film, probably the best being a decapitation cut to a doll falling to the floor and breaking (its head being one of the pieces scooped up by the child who broke it).
The backstory, once we are let in on it, is rather sinisterly good (it just happens to take a backseat to the visuals). There seem to be motivations for the murders and the film starts off in a way that wants you to try to guess who the killer is (after meeting several questionable characters/caricatures). After awhile though, it loses itself in (suspected) killers being the ones killed and that becomes the point of it all (aside from the loose, high-end interpretation about how humanity kills not just itself but the environment around us). Though, it must be noted that the very end of this is awesome and I am convinced it would probably never be done by a mainstream filmmaker today (edit: Tim Lucas says that Joe Dante said it is “the greatest ending to a movie since Citizen Kane“).
All that being said, most horror aficionados agree that, without this film, there would most definitely be no Friday the 13th. Or at least it might not have been set near a body of water (There is a small section of this movie that is basically a precursor for every teen murder romp made in the ’80s). If you want to know more about any of this, I suggest you listen to the sure-to-be informative DVD commentary by Tim Lucas, or somehow get ahold of (and let me borrow) his out-of-my-pricerange tomb of a book entitled Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark.